Young Mustang Soccer Team Full Of Surprises In Final Weeks

Of the 12 teams qualified for next week’s Division I boys state soccer tournament, none will enter the event more under the radar than Kalaheo.

Only two years after being in DII, the Mustangs found themselves as something of a newcomer at the Final Four of last week’s OIA tournament amid traditional DI powers Kapolei, Mililani and Kalani — which is fine with longtime head coach John Nakagawa.

“All the credit to the players — it is about them,” Nakagawa said. “We are both a new team and a young team, and it took them awhile to evolve to the point where they knew what their identity was.

“This year’s team is entirely different from last year’s. We graduated 10 seniors and have only four starters back from that team. It was more than a rebuilding year, it was a reconstruction project.

“Striving to have a team that’s cohesive is not easy, especially when you have so many new players. Qualifying for the state tournament has been our goal since preseason, so we’re very, very excited.”

And it’s a successful reconstruction project at that. The Mustangs entered last Thursday’s late OIA semifinal against West’s No. 1 Mililani with an 8-1-2 record. Their lone defeat, a 4-0 loss to Moanalua, came Dec. 12 in week one. Kalaheo then went on a 10-game winning streak, tying Kalani 2-2 and Kaiser 1-1.

Its 1-0 win over Castle last Wednesday in the OIA quarterfinals officially punched its ticket for states.

This week, the team is regrouping. The championship and third-place games were to be played Saturday before Kalaheo’s two-week layoff. The team plays a first-round game either Feb. 20 or 21. Pairings for the DI state soccer tourney, which will play out at various sites around the state, will be released late Sunday.

“It is a long but welcome break,” Nakagawa admitted. “It already has been a long season, and this will give the players a chance to recuperate. We’ll do our best to keep them from getting stale.”

Among its strengths has been the ability to defend, not just with four defenders and a goalkeeper, but with all 10 players on the field, according to Nakagawa. Through 11 games, Kalaheo already had four shutouts, and it yielded only a single goal in four other outings. The opening loss to Moanalua aside, only two teams — Kalani and McKinley (a 5-2 Kalaheo win) — managed to score two goals against it.

“Our (execution on) defense has been an evolutionary process,” the coach explained. “It took awhile for everyone to buy in. When we do turn the ball over, we have to play high-pressure defense from the forwards all the way back (to the midfielders and defenders).

If Kalaheo could be described in a word, it would be “workmanlike,” as the team resembles a band without a true front man. There are 17 players, three of them goalies, and all have played a big part in Kalaheo’s success, Nakagawa said.

“We’re going to rely on everyone to contribute,” he noted about the coming week. “A major factor (at states) is experience and depth. We’re short on both.

“We want to be as fit as we can be and injury-free and see how far it takes us. We think we’ve been hitting our stride and our potential.”

Kalaheo’s first-round game will be either on Maui or at Waipio Soccer Complex. The tourney shifts to Oahu after that, with the semifinals and finals Feb. 27-28 at Waipio.